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Sunday 8 December 2019

Eamon Carr: 'Pool on their perch but no slip-ups allowed'

Title challengers will be mindful of history ‑ and they don't have to look back far to see lessons

Jurgen Klopp. Photo: REUTERS/David Klein
Jurgen Klopp. Photo: REUTERS/David Klein

"We are back on our perch, as we famously say," joked Liverpool CEO Peter Moore at the World Football Summit in Madrid.

Certainly, Moore has reasons for being cheerful. Liverpool currently top the league, five points ahead of champions Manchester City.

With just six games played in the season, Jurgen Klopp's team are eight points ahead of traditional rivals Manchester United.

No wonder Moore delighted in referencing Liverpool's resurgence. After all, it was Man United's then manager Alex Ferguson who once revealed, "My greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their f**king perch."

But while Liverpool can rejoice at being crowned European champions for the sixth time, Moore, like Liverpool's long-suffering supporters, probably needs no reminding of how difficult it is to win the Premier League.

Having finished last season with nineconsecutive wins, the team has set a club record of 15 consecutive league victoriess.

Position

Right now, Liverpool are in pole position on the Premier League grid and some think they've spotted a chink in Man City's armour.

But Liverpool will be mindful of history. Last season, Liverpool beat Arsenal 5-1 on December 29 and extended their lead to nine points.

Yet, despite amassing 97 points, the third highest total in Premier League history, Liverpool were pipped to the title by a single point.

This season, Jurgen Klopp will hope to go one better.

He knows what lies ahead. "They're all waiting and want to give us a knock," he says. "We have to be ready."

If Liverpool's challenge for a first league title since 1990 is not to be derailed, Klopp will need to be fully alert.

Rafa Benitez, who managed Liverpool to Champions League glory in Istanbul in 2005, believes Klopp's team tops his. "This team have the intensity and the quality that can make the difference in games," he says.

Yet doubts remain whether the squad has enough strength in depth. Emile Heskey, who made 150 appearances for Liverpool, says, "Manchester City have the best squad in terms of depth. City have a better blend. I think City have a better midfield."

The former striker adds, "If you take Salah, Mane or Firmino out, it's not quite the same."

While on their pre-season tour, Jurgen Klopp was already pointing to the problems created for his squad by fixture congestion.

With Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Alisson having been involved in international tournaments, the manager worried about the possible onset of fatigue.

"They have had a tough summer programme," he said. "It will be a tough start."

However, the real test has yet to come.

Traditionally, December is a notorious month for crowded fixture schedules and, with Liverpool contesting all tournaments, squad rotation will be essential. Last season Liverpool became the first team to win all seven Premier League games in December. A repeat performance may be required this season.

Holistic

Described by Peter Moore as "one of the more holistic human beings you will ever meet", Klopp will need all his skills to keep his star players grounded and committed to the team ethos.

With the league leaders under more scrutiny than most, people have been focussing on relations between Mane and Salah.

The club insists there's no problem.

Jamie Carragher points out: "Where managers do become wary is if cliques form, sides are taken and personalities clash to such an extreme it becomes detrimental to the unity and spirit within the camp."

Another concern has to be how the team would cope without imperious defender Virgin Van Dijk.

"Of course injuries can happen," concedes Jurgen Klopp. "It is the reason we have four centre-halves."

As Liverpool know better than most, a tense title race brings unique pressures.

In 1995, Man United lost the title to Blackburn Rovers by drawing with West Ham in their last match.

The following year, Newcastle United had a 12 point lead in January and some bookies had already paid out on the club winning the title before manager Kevin Keegan infamously cracked on Sky in response to mind games instigated by Alex Ferguson who guided Man United to a title win.

Seven years later, Ferguson turned the screw on Arsenal in the title race saying, "It's getting tickly now. Squeaky bum time, I call it.

"And we've got the experience now to cope."

Liverpool can't afford a slip-up.

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